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Research

3 months in, it’s time for taking stock of the activities that have marked the beginning of our collective explorations of ‘the explorative exhibition’.

Workshop 1: User perspectives and design thinking

In late May, the 7 person project team – i.e. the people managing exhibitions, collections, research and education at Enigma Museum + me – went on tour to my old project-partner museum, Ragnarock.

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Curator (and previous collaboration partner) Rasmus Rosenørn presents Ragnarock to the Enigma team: educator Mads Danker Danielsen, curator Eva Wistoft Andersen, curating assistant Arne Noack, exhibition lead Martin Johansen, exhibition editor Tine Stevnhoved and lead researcher Andreas Marklund

The idea behind the excursion was to give the user perspective a central role in our project by making that our starting point: being users and potential contributors in another institution. Hence, despite the obvious differences between the two museums, Ragnarock is also an interesting parallel to Enigma in that both relate to contemporary, everyday culture, and both seek to engage the public in collating their history as a polyphonic narrative. Moreover, Ragnarock’s take on interactive exhibition design could serve as a common reference in future discussions, whilst the problematics of the ‘rockspor’ site would remind us of the challenges of designing for participation.

Rethinking ways in which to engage with our own musical history was therefore the challenge in the afternoon workshop. In preparation, I had asked to team to respond to a ‘proto’ probe on this theme – originally designed for the Ragnarock project – as a means to tune in and reminisce, but also as an introduction to this particular method as a potential tool in our continued process.

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Rockspor proto probe

The workshop itself, however, was structured around the Stanford d.school crash course in design thinking. This format takes you through the stages of a design thinking process in just a couple of hours: building empathy through interviews, defining a problem statement, ideating and iterating solutions and finally building and testing prototypes. The point of the exercise is thus not to come up with solid solutions, but rather to get acquainted with the basic ideas of design thinking (as formulated by the d.school; there is a wider spectrum of methodologies related to design thinking, which again relates to human centred design, and to the Scandinavian traditions of CoDesign and Participatory Design, as argued by Björgvinsson et al. . For an extended presentation of how design thinking may be applied to a museum context, see Dana Mitroff Silver’s MW2013 paper).

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Team members ‘testing’ ideas in the design thinking crash course

The purpose of the workshop was mainly to work as a warm-up exercise for the design work ahead, and therefore, more than the team’s innovative idea sketches, the most interesting thing for me to observe was the power of prototyping, as I sensed a palpable rise of energy and buzz of productive playfulness when we shifted from pen and paper to making mode, even if the prototyping materials were pretty basic.

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Prototyping in progress

So even though the ensuing discussion (along with bringing up points about the craft of interviewing; the pros and cons of time pressure; and an interesting observation about memory as a social construct) also stressed the need for building more knowledge and clarifying our design intentions before launching into production mode and engaging users, to me the workshop also illustrated how ideas and understandings are also constructed in the making process. In my thesis, I built on Hastrup’s idea about research as a process of ‘ontological dumping’, in which relational understandings of the world are transformed into objects of knowledge, to describe how the design process similarly lets understandings of the problem field become substantialised in the form of suggested solutions (Hastrup 2006:3; Baggesen 2015:55). This notion could be a heuristic for the continued process in this project, which also aims to explore how design methodology affects museum development processes.

Design T/things

Following on from this, workshop 2 focused on clarifying the museum’s intentions. But, to stick with the methodology angle, let me first make a note about the workshop space. As noted earlier, Enigma Museum is still in-the-making, raising money and making plans for future exhibitions while experimenting with other ways of being a museum, e.g. through events, external collaborations, pop-up exhibitions and media presence. From a museological point of view, this process and these experiments are fascinating to follow. But another upshot of this limbo state is that the museum still has space to spare, meaning that I could clear a corner of the provisional storage floor to set up a workspace for the project.

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(Pristine) project workspace at Enigma Museum

Being able to furnish it with an old mahogany table set once used by the museum board was a scoop, adding a symbolic meaning of having a mandate to make decisions, whilst also lending some definition or solidity to the makeshift space. In practical terms, the space also gives us walls to mount our work-in-progress ideas and inspirations on, and, most importantly, gives the project a (temporary) permanence and physical presence, a place to go to go into project mode and pick up from where we left off, rather than having to re-establish the project arena, conceptually and materially, every time.

In a sense, therefore, establishing this workspace is a very literal, spatial response to the argument made by Björgvinsson et al., that “a fundamental challenge for designers and the design community is to move from designing ‘things’ (objects) to designing Things (socio-material assemblies)” (2012:102; insert brackets in the original). This Latourian idea (playing on the shared etymology of the word ‘thing’ and the old Nordic democratic institution the Ting/Thing) of the design (research) process as an assembly of people, artefacts and ideas gathered to address pertinent matters of concern, is one I also pursued in my PhD project, and a fundament for my continued research. The current project is thus also a gathering together of people and interests with the dual objective of creating both museum development – designing a new format for collection and mediation – and museological research – exploring matters of concern. To this end, moreover, I will also be designing a collection of methodological tools or design things, such as probes, personas and concept/dialogue cards to assist the process.

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Concept cards for ‘the explorative exhibition’ (see Baggesen 2015:81ff for method description)

In many ways, I would like to expand on the methodological considerations I explored in my dissertation, and pursue this design theoretical track also in this project, but  do I really have the time to go out on a theoretical/methodological limb about design things/Things? Is it relevant enough, in this context, and is the project strong enough to sustain a valuable contribution in this field? Of course, if I focused my energy here, I could make it so, but then my primary interest in this project is to provide a real, useful contribution to the museum’s ongoing development process. Still, the project needs to encompass both the academic and the practical. So, should the continued project process focus on efficient design of realisable prototypes ready for testing in the foreseeable future, allowing me to complete an empirical study of user responses, as suggested by one senior researcher in the programme? Should the process focus on staging discussions in the project team, allowing me to elicit and explore more nuances in the museological matters of concern, or even testing and challenging the convictions and rhetorics of the museum, as suggested by another? Is my main contribution to the museum the development of a ready-for-production mediation concept, or an experiment in methodology to fuel future work processes? Am I a catalyst, a facilitator, an evaluator, a critic or a team member; an insider or an outsider? All of the above, perhaps? So, it’s a balancing act, pursuing academic objectives and development objectives at once, while also juggling museum realities and pragmatic project constraints as I plan for the next stages of the project.

 

Workshop 2: Design intentions

Negotiating different or even conflicting objectives, ambitions, constraints and concerns was also a theme in our second workshop, focusing on our design intentions. To begin my research, I had earlier conducted a series of short, individual interviews with the project team members in order to establish some kind of baseline of the project before setting off on our joint expedition. As expected, their ideas and concerns were overlapping but also quite diverse in terms of what they saw as the primary aims of the project and of the exhibition ‘mechanism’ projected as the intended result. It was therefore necessary to stage a discussion of these different perspectives to get a joint idea of the scope and discuss conflicts and commonalities, and to see if we could reach an agreement on our design intentions.

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The discussion was both constructive and inspiring, and provided relevant material for analysis in relation to the Our Museum dimensions, even though we didn’t succeed in arriving at a singular objective. Still, from a rough analysis of the video documentation and post-it notes from the session, I could distill a provisional ‘wishlist’ of intentions, including the wish to co-create a polyphonic history of communication with our users; to create identification and foster ownership and empowerment; to engage users in our research; and to create inspiring, iconic, and innovative exhibition experiences.

Of course, this still reads more like an idealistic mission statement than a concrete design brief, but these grand objectives are also relevant as guidelines in our continued process. And of course, the discussion also pointed to many aspects that were still unresolved: whether user contributions should feed into research, or exhibitions, or both; whether participation should function as a means for collecting or as a didactic strategy, or both; how to handle incoming data and materials; how many ressources this kind of strategy would require, and how many the museum is able or willing to spare; and, of course, whether and how our users would want to participate.

Museological study group

In the continued process, we will try to find answers to these questions through exhibition experiments and user engagement. In parallel, however, we will also try to understand these issues through discussions of museological theory. So far, we’ve had two study group sessions; one focusing on participation, with texts by Nina Simon, Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt & Pille Runnel, and Bernadette Lynch; and another on museum missions with readings of Duncan Cameron and David Anderson, along with the (re-published) Musetrain Manifesto, Orhan Pamuks Modest Museum Manifesto and ICOM’s Cultural Diversity Charter.

Now, I’ve had to realise that I have been a bit over ambitious with the quantity of reading, but apart from that, this experiment in bringing museological theory into museum practice has proven to be very inspiring. Realising (with initial disbelief and then som disappointment) in the first year of my postdoc how little academic museum research is used in museum practice (I know, practitioners are very busy, and academia can be a bit too cerebral, still it seems such a waste of effort and potential), I am quite excited to have met such a positive attitude to the idea in Enigma, and to see that it does seem to make sense to infuse practice with theory, to provoke discussion and build up a shared set of references and ideas.

 

Next steps

On the basis of these initial explorations, and after finally getting clarification on the continued framework for the project (i.e. that museum did not get funding for a large scale project that this project could have fed into), we have now been able to adjust the project scope to focus more on exhibitions and less on research, and have also deviced a new project design comprising three joint experiments in how to collect and exhibit userdriven narratives. I’m looking forward to tucking into the project proper, but first up, it’s time for a summer break. Starting…now! [press publish]

 

 


References:

Baggesen, R. (2015). Mobile Museology: An exploration of fashionable museums, mobilisation, and trans-museal mediation. PhD thesis, University of Copenhagen

Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P. & Hillgren, P. (2012). ‘Design things and design thinking: contemporary participatory design challenges’. Design Issues, Vol.28(3), pp.101-116

Hastrup, K. (2006). ‘Designforskning: mellem materialitet og socialitet’ [’Design research: between materiality and sociality’]. Copenhagen Working Papers on Design. Copenhagen: Danmarks Designskole.

Silvers, D.M. et al (2013). ‘Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement: Tackling One Museum’s Big Challenge through Human-centered Design’. Museums and the Web 2013, online proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics.

So, time to ramp up the blog again. Following the completion of my PhD research and dissertation last year, I was all out of words, and it was a relief to let the whole musing on museums thing lie for a while. Trouble is, the longer it’s left, the harder it feels to pick it up again. Where to start and why even bother? What could I possibly add to the already flourishing online debate? What’s the benefit? As of next week, however, I will be teaching digital museum mediation and museology to two classes here at Uni. of Copenhagen (again, but this time one class will be in Danish and one in English), and given that I am asking my students to blog, I should at least give it a go myself. Also, despite my hesitation (put it down to reservation, laziness, self-consciousness or lack of inspiration) I actually do miss the outlet, and simply need to get back into the swing of it again.

As a sort of warm up exercise, then, for blogging and for teaching, and with particular address to those of my students who find their way to my blog, let me begin by musing on blogging as a tool for research and reflection instead. Hence, as stated by Mortensen & Walker,

To blog is an activity similar in many ways to the work of the researcher. A weblogger filters a mass of information, choosing the items that interest her or that are relevant to her chosen topic, commenting upon them, demonstrating connections between them and analysing them. (2002:250)

Considering blogging a part of my research method, and including a selection of blog posts in my dissertation, I wrote about the topic in my methodology chapter:

In Thoughtful Interaction Design, Löwgren & Stolterman (2004) describe the sketch as a ‘conversation partner’ for the designer […], talking back and leading to new questions and considerations. In a similar fashion, my blog has allowed me to sketch thoughts and ideas in the process, communicating them not only to the world, but especially to myself. Moreover, the blog has supported my divergent research strategy. The relative swiftness – and relatively lax self-censorship – of the blogging process has thus given me an opportunity to consider a much wider spectrum of ideas than a rigorous study would normally permit.

Compared to the conventions of scholarly argumentation, the processual nature of the blog format inspires a freer form of expression. It thereby allows for the articulation of unfinished thoughts and open questions, as well as for expressing personal opinions or concerns. However, in contrast to a visual sketch, written language demands a particular structure, stringing concepts together to formulate a linear argument or coherent question. A scribbled short hand note-to-self can thus be deceptive, letting you think that you have captured an essence of thought. By contrast, making (parts of) my thought process public online has forced me to make more sense of the makings of this ‘essence’, to engage more deeply with the questions, the matters of concern I have grabbled with. Trying to explain – to myself, as well as to an invisible audience (boyd 2007) – why certain observations warrant attention, why certain concepts inspire or provoke me, taking guesses at their implication even if not always subjecting them to thorough analysis, has helped me to discover new facets and new dilemmas pertaining to each issue. (Baggesen 2015: 77) [references below]

The benefit of blogging for me, then, is that it helps me notice what I notice or find noticable about a text, an exhibition or an idea. It helps me reflect on and remember my observations, even if the analysis may not go as deep as that of an academic paper. Hence, for me it’s more of a personal notebook and less of a public platform, and my blog has been a very useful record of issues and examples, that I did not necessarily have any particular use for at the time, but which turned out to be valuable later on. Often, I don’t come to any conclusions about these issues on the blog, so in terms of using it to enter into the ongoing debate, my blog is not very strong. It even makes me feel a little vulnerable, putting all these half-baked thoughts into the open. Perhaps I should work on that, be more clear about having a particular message for a particular audience. And yet again, that could kind of defeat the object, or at least imply a taking a different approach, as the purpose of the blog thus far has not been to have a voice, but to hear myself think. The reason for doing this in public is simply that it enforces an aspect of discipline, sticking with a topic until at least it makes sense to me rather than dropping it when it gets tricky. Still, maybe I should start experimenting a bit more with what the blog could be used for, at least keep the option open.

 

Nevertheless, what I ask of my students is not that they find a public voice or provide definite insights into current museum issues, but that they try to use their blogs as tools for reflection, and see how it works for them. It’s meant to be a tool for learning and hopefully discovering what it is about museums and museology that makes them tick.

And hey, I know it’s tricky to get started, to find something to write about, and that you may feel sheepish about the result. It’s OK. A short post will do. If nothing else springs to mind, simply start by telling about a recent or memorable museum visit and zoom in on a detail that stood out for you. Share a photo, quote the program. See where it takes you, if description leads to reflection. If not this time, maybe next. You’ll be fine.

 

References

Baggesen, R. (2015). Mobile museology. An exploration of fashionable museums, mobilisation, and trans-museal mediation. PhD thesis, University of Copenhagen.

boyd, d. (2007). ‘Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life’. In Buckinham, D. (ed.), MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning – Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Löwgren, J. & Stolterman, E. (2004). Thoughtful Interaction Design: A design perspective on information technology. London & Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Mortensen, T. & Walker, J. (2002). ‘Blogging thoughts: personal publication as an online research tool’. In Morrison, A. (ed.), Researching ICTs in Context, Oslo: InterMedia Report, 3/2002.

[sketch for a prologue]

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Glitter banner (acrylic binder, glitter, velvet) & photo by Lise Haller Baggesen Ross 2011

A common, or readily comprehensible, metaphor for scientific research is shining a light, a torch perhaps, on the world, and reporting what you see. You know, a nice, neat circle of light; a concise elucidation for the sake of enlightenment. Everything around it is necessarily left in the dark, still, in this spot of light we see at least a portion of the world, bright and clear.

In this project, however, the multifaceted field of mobile museology has worked somewhat like a mirrorball. So many things to think about, so many ways to consider the interplay of museums and media, fashion and design research, change, trends, politics, practice, #museumselfies and theoretical conundrums. And I cannot rely solely on academic discourse presented in peer-reviewed journals and authorised anthologies if I want to try to get a grasp on what is going on. Every museum visit provides new food for thought. In my Twitter feed, hardly a week goes by without a new cluster of people commenting from yet another museum conference or seminar, under yet another obscure hashtag. At the same time, national and international newspapers regularly report from the digital frontiers of the museum, often setting of another round of responses and discussions in the blogosphere. All this talk about transformations, challenges, new horizons and changing paradigms. What is new is perhaps not so much that the museum institution is up for discussion, but that I, like the rest of the museum community, am constantly reminded of the ongoing debate and called to reflect on new viewpoints and perspectives. The field is not fixed.

Rather than making one clear projection, then, my research produces a dapple of lights, illuminating different aspects at once. In one article I explore a fashion perspective on institutional changes, in another, mobilisation and digital discourse. My blog posts, as my research, comprise a jumble of musings, on anything from methodological curiosity to musealisation of everyday objects. I have not been able to tear myself away from the sparkle to focus my mental torch on a single issue. But then, do I really need to?

Mirrorball methodology may not sound like sound academic practice. What of the focus, the stringency? What of relevance and rigour? Surely that could never chime with swaying to a beat in a flimsy light? And really, a dissertation should not be ‘all over the place’, no. But could there be an argument for trying to join the dots, rather than fixating on one spot? Could there be a place in academia for jazzing it up a little?

I believe there is. There must be, or we’d lose out on trans-disciplinary perspectives, on trajectories of thought which may not always be fully formed but nevertheless need articulation, for others to pursue or reject. Likewise, academic genres must be mouldable to fit contemporary research interests and methodologies if we are to be truly transparent about what we have actually done, rather than reconstructing research to fit into existing formats.

I’m not even talking about breaking the mould, either,  just stretching it a little. And the pattern of light is not as random as it may seem at a glance. I’ll do my damnedest to tie it together and make cohesive arguments, to articulate as best I can the arena which I have assembled and the matters of concern which I have uncovered, in proper academic prose. The mirrrorball image, fetching as it is (ah, the tune it invokes in your mind), and quaintly befitting reflective research in the GLAM sector, is just metaphor, not really method. But please, hum along, come along when sometimes I wander. I do believe that such an approach will prove illustrative.

New article published in Mediekultur, Journal of media and communication research, vol. 30, no 56

Abstract:
Mirroring digital culture developments in society at large, museums are increasingly incorporating social media platforms and formats into their communication practices. More than merely providing additional channels of communication, this development is invested with an understanding of social media as integral to the ongoing democra- tisation of the museum. The confluences of new media affordances with New Muse- ology objectives along with the underpinnings of the aforementioned understanding is discussed in this article. The article will argue that development in this area is not only driven by solid results and public demand but also by collective assumptions and associations as well as by a political need for institutions to justify their relevance in society. In conclusion, the article suggests that, while the integration of social media communication may serve to market the museum as inclusive, it may also simply pay lip service to genuine civic engagement and democratic exchanges with the public.

The article is available to download as PDF from http://ojs.statsbiblioteket.dk/index.php/mediekultur/article/view/8964

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Finally got round to actually working with the empirical material from my two workshops at Designmuseum Danmark. What’s more, I think I’ve found my handle on it too, after battling through uncertainties about how, and not least why I should do it.

There’s a back story to that uncertainty. Initially, I set out to explore how mobile museum experiences would tie in with more general pursuits of cultural/fashion interest via mobile and social media; a media ecology kind of thinking. But as I was also very keen on carrying on the design research approach I had developed in my master thesis, I came to realise that there was a mismatch between the questions I wanted to ask and what my methodology would let me answer. Methodology won out, sending me on a route that is more museology and less media oriented, i.e. asking about the implications of mobile museum experiences for the museum. And yet I felt that I still had to do some kind of empirical study, that I had to produce some data I could analyse and learn from and base my assertions on. Being an academic rookie, I lacked the confidence to stick to humanistic analysis with a design twist, thinking that it would not count as real science. So now I’m trying to make it count.

The concept of coding still feels a bit alien, like there’s some part of it I’m not getting because I never trained in social science. I’m a humanist, studied literature before moving on to design and digital culture studies. I have only a vague notion of grounded theory; ‘coding’ is not really my lingo. But it’s an aspect of analysis, right, it’s marking up your data (data is another word that feels wrong, cold somehow) to work out what’s in there, what the themes and discourses are, exposing contradictions and finding patterns, deciding what issues to pursue and how they relate to the material overall. At least that’s how I understand the process I’m going through.

After giving some consideration to coding software for qualitative data, reading about and checking out demo videos for Atlas.ti and Nvivo, I decided that a) spending time learning how to use the software would be a detour, given that my material is not that extensive, and b) the digital format somehow distanced me from the content, whereas an analogue approach gave me a better sense of what was there and what I wanted to do with it, as an iterative process rather than working to a preset design. Fairly grounded theory-esque, I guess. Keeping it handheld was also more consistent with my process so far – designing my probes and the design game for the workshops had been a very touchy-feely affair, and being able to paste the whole thing on my wall gives me a better sense of overview, something I’ve used in various stages of the project.

Concept/inspiration collage for development of workshop and design game

Concept/inspiration wall collage for design development

Coded transcripts from workshop II+III

Coded transcripts from workshop II+III

So through painstakingly adding hundreds of multi-coloured post-its (annotating and marking different strands and marvelling at how pretty it is) I have uncovered some interesting themes that I can unfold in my continued analysis and discuss in relation to other sources and observations and to theoretical positions in museology. These themes include commercial constraints and considerations (and how much the participating curators take these into account in their work); the importance of brand and branding; notions of institutional authority and curatorial ambitions; museological positions and practices; professional positionings; audience/user perspectives including UCG; pros, cons and contradictions re. cross-media communication; fashion as field and fashion as perspective; and more. Despite my recurring uncertainties about what this empirical study was really for, given that it is so limited that I cannot make many claims on this basis alone, it has actually served the purpose of illuminating some of the possibilities and conflicts in my field of study, as per my research design:

Diagram of research design

Diagram of research design

So it’s coming together. But will I also be able to make sense of it, as in valid scientific sense? Still grabbling with (and increasingly fascinated by) what science is, what makes it scientific, especially when pushing the traditional boundaries of science. I expect some would argue that what I do isn’t real science, and I know that making a solid argument for the validity of design research in general and of my study specifically will be one of the prime tasks in my dissertation. Which is why I ramble about it here, even if it also makes me feel exposed, to try to come to grips with what I’ve done and why. Thinking out loud, in print (and keeping my supervisors updated too). In this way, these slap-dash pontifications on the blog serve as rough sketches for the arguments I wish to make in my thesis, or sometimes just to off-load all the preamble, so that in my thesis, I can cut to the chase.

Martin Ludvigsen, in chapter seven: ‘Reflections on Interaction Design Research’ of his 2006 PhD dissertation Designing for Social Interaction does an excellent job of explaining the groundings of interaction design research in HCI and makes a strong argument for its scientific validity, which I will surely build on in my own thesis. (Actually, it’s the kind of writing that I wish I could do.) Conceding that ‘[f]undamentally it is difficult to accept design thinking as valid because of the intrinsic lack of logics and, when we delve deeper into it, the lack of scientific rigor with regards to reproducibility, falsification, objectivity etc.’ (2006:93) he moves on to expound the virtues of aesthetic reasoning as an alternative to logic. Rather than narrowly focusing on functionality and measurable results, ‘thinking aesthetically about an interactive artifact is to be conscious about its entire composition over time and the effect it has on the context and users’ (ibid.), Ludvigsen argues. Building on the German philosopher Baumgarten, as explicated by Kjørup (1999), he thus establishes aesthetics as an analytical discipline, and alternative route to enlightenment, as ‘conceptual discovery or epistemological evolution is a continual shedding light on new concepts’ (Ludvigsen 2006:94). Using our cognitive capacity for creative thinking and innovation as a way to understand ‘wicked problems’ (Buchanan 1995, in Ludvigsen 2006:90, 92), i.e. problems that can only be described in full through attempted solutions, and for aesthetic judgement as conducive for hollistic understandings of problems in context and for (un)covering conceptual grounds, should therefore be regarded as an invaluable supplement to logics-led scientific experimentation. As argued by Ludvigsen ‘The aestetic ‘track’ in the human mind is active. This should be read as a proposal for a foundation to talk about design thinking as equal – not subordinate to – logic and traditional scientific thinking’ (2006:97).

He then goes on to cite Latour’s normative definitions of science, which break with the traditional paradigm of Popperian falsification to build instead on the principles proposed by the Belgian philosophers Stenger and Despret. Without selling short the importance of rigor, the emphasis here is on scientific relevance, suggesting that sticking to tried and tested scientific activities does not in itself secure that a study is scientific, as, according to Stenger and Despret, scientific means interesting and risky (Ludvigsen 2006:100) – breaking new ground and making yourself vulnerable to seeing your hypothesis crumble. The aim of science then, rather than making absolute statements, is  ‘rendering talkative what was until then mute‘ (ibid.:101); to articulate propositions about the world, thus adding to what Latour calls the multiverse. This, obviously, ties in neatly with what I touched upon in my paper for the Nordes doctoral consortiumalso with reference to Latour, about the ability of design to articulate (museological) matters of concern, thus posing a constructive critique which allows for discussion of the current state and possible futures of the museum.

This sort of stuff is right up my alley. I’m really not much of an empiricist, finding theory and creative explorations much more inspiring and hence more productive for my cognitive process. My home brewed, half baked heuristic is that just like learning theory talks about different learning styles, different kinds of science speaks to different kinds of minds. So even though I can appreciate the significance of, say, quantitative data on patterns of mobile use in museums, it doesn’t necessarily push my buttons or satiate my curiosity about why these use patterns are as they are, why people were in the museums in the first place, the existential and social role of museums in society, what it all means and if it could be otherwise? So it’s truly great that other scientist will do the crucial studies that I don’t have the knack for, and that I instead get the chance to apply different methodologies to different types of questions (i.e. watered down versions of the questions above). Which I hold are worth pursuing, and which might speak to others with an interest similar to mine.

As of yesterday, and for the next six weeks, I am in New York as a short term visiting research fellow to Bard Graduate Center (or BGC). And as much as I am already smitten by the city (what I’ve seen of it on my daily commute walking the Upper West side) the research institute is what has impressed me the most so far. As an outsider, I will not attempt to explain what the institution stands for, but refer instead to this introductory presentation by Dean Peter N. Miller (transcript) and Dean Elean Simon’s brilliant blog Learning from Things. I will say, however,  that this place is every bit as amazing as I had imagined.

As the video shows, it is a beautiful site with a thoroughbread academic vibe; the academic section taking up two tastefully decorated brownstones on West 86th Street. Not luxurious but exclusive, or, as my sister put it, a place of the happy few, the privileged. But in this case the feeling of privilege also brings out an aspiration to work hard; inspires a respect for both the material culture studied and the multidisciplinary research carried out here as well as for academic endeavor in general.

Straight away, it reminded me of the ‘sanctuary’ feel of Statens Værksteder for Kunst in Copenhagen, an artist recidency program offering fully equipped workshops and studios for artists and artisans. During my own recidency there back in 2005, I learned that the attractive surroundings and the ideal conditions offered were indeed intended to inspire residents to be their best and produce outstanding work. I sense a similar spirit here at the BGC, and look forward to participating in the institution’s events next week when the students return and courses resume after the spring break.

Before loosing myself in the academic debate, I will need to work on my lift pitch though! Being in awe of this place, I imagine everybody to be exceptionally gifted, and so get a little starstruck, ending up rambling something incoherent about my project. So even if everybody I’ve met so far have been very friendly and patient with me, I do hope that I will manage to present myself and my subject field in a better light over the next few weeks.

Although I am not sure if it is feasible for me to attend courses (or whether I have the time), I am  intrigued by the catalogue of subjects covered as well as by the didactic approach taken here. Capping  the course size to a maximum of 10 students allows for true dialogue to take place, reflecting the institution’s belief that research and teaching are mutually beneficial. As research based teaching (and teaching based research) is also a requirement of my own institution, it would be interesting to experience how it is practiced here.

Reading room at the BGC

And then there’s the library. I’m so impressed I don’t even know where to begin. With 50.000 volumes on subjects related to decorative arts, design history and material culture (which includes museology, fashion and cultural studies, critical theory, art history, exhibition catalogues and periodicals) it seems like this place has every book I could need for my project, as well as access to online materials. Stacked on open shelves, I can read an article, look up interesting references in the online catalogue, and go and find the book or journal there and then to take out to my office. Being able to immerse myself in my project like this is truly helpful – today I finally got to read Malraux’s ‘Museum Without Walls’ (which turned out to be not quite as relevant for my projects as expected, but that in itself was a useful discovery) and hoarded a stack of pdf articles on fashion curation from the journal Fashion and Theory. Being free to put in long hours helps too, a luxury I don’t normally have. So even with all of New York to explore, I am quite happy to be spending most of the time here holed up in my office.